"Economic growth and environmental protection are not at odds.
They're opposite sides of the same coin if you're looking at longer-term prosperity."
So! I'm happy to say that I made the Top 100 in the NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) Showcase Competition this year in the Conservation Category! My image is of a Threatened Western Snowy Plover mother shielding her rare and precious eggs from the rain--with human development in the background.
One of the biggest threats to this species of plover is continued human development into beach habitats along the coastlines of California, Oregon, and Washington. Only about 2,000 of these little, tough badasses remain but with the help of organizations like Point Blue Conservation, who helped me get this image, they are repopulating slowly but surely!
You can start to help the Western Snowy Plovers repopulate by keeping your feet, and perhaps your dog's paws, out of the roped-off protected areas on recreational beaches. It's not a suggestion, that's where they nest!
Anyway, on with the study!
Camera Settings and Technique
Nikon D7200, 35mm (DX), 1/400th sec, f/8, ISO 400, WB 5,050k
So how can you create a Top 100 Nature Photo in North America? You might not think it, but trust is definitely a technique. After all, this image would sure-as-hell not be possible without the trust earned between myself and Point Blue Conservation. Conservation photographers, if they are not already, are poised to be the greatest storytellers out of any photographic discipline in history, despite it being the newest photographic genre. The burden we carry to tell the hard-hitting and often emotionally upsetting stories of the current global mass extinction in order to sway public opinion into saving Earth’s ecosystem’s cannot be understated. Telling those stories about conservation, positive or negative, can't be accomplished without the help of conservation organizations. For an image like this one, an ethical photographer needs the permission of the people and organizations who are protecting a Threatened or Endangered species because the wildlife itself lives in a restricted area, in addition to being a bit more intrusive with the camera than normal.
I absolutely love working with biologists and other such researchers. If you actually manage to earn their trust, it's guaranteed that they will share knowledge with you that only they know and will help you get the shots that are normally impossible to achieve. There is a combination of art, science, and conservation. It's an unmatched trifecta in visual storytelling for wildlife.
However, I've heard too many times from biologists that they are willing to consider me working with them because I bring purpose, meaning, and an overall goal that helps conserve the wildlife with my images. So many photographers are in it for themselves and their portfolio. This is the wrong mindset entirely. If you're going to work with conservation organizations, you must set aside your own ego and personal goals, let go, and be willing to ask them how you can help them advance awareness for a species through your visual campaign. It's imperative to weave together your story with their goals. Yeah, it's not easy, but it's worth it! And if you're genuine and really want to help, I think it's really more fun than anything. The experiences are priceless and satisfying for both parties.
Before you approach organizations, make sure you do you research about the species in question. Where do they live? What makes them special and uniquely suited to their habitat? Why are they under threat? Who are the key organizations and people involved with their rehabilitation and protection? How can you provide valuable creativity and documentation to them? Be passionate, open-hearted, and transparent about your intentions and curiosity.
Sometimes, life gives us photographers almost exactly what we need in order to make a great shot that also possesses lasting definition. Thankfully, this is what happened here. Sure, the image isn't very vibrant, the light isn't good, the animal isn't particularly impressive at face value, and rain started pouring onto the lens, but the story is strong and seeing a mother coming in to protect her eggs is preciously rare. In fact, there is no other image like it of this species anywhere. It's entirely unique.
Knowing that I had only seconds to set up my stationary camera after the biologist physically checked the health of the eggs, I quickly composed a shot with many elements that fortuitously lined up with each other. Before we approached the nest, I knew for sure that I wanted the human development in the background in order to tell that story of the way we humans are pushing our own expansion into every corner of the wild we can, forsaking the very beings that fully regulate the ecosystems our lives rely on.
In general, it's the photographer's imperative to make sure that the health of the lives that we're photographing are more important than the images we create. In other words, as photographers, don't mess with the lives of the animals so that it changes their behavior. With this in mind, I have just about 60 seconds to set up a shot and leave the area while the biologist directs me safely through the habitat and alerts me to potential problems. And before that, we've already come up with a game plan and I have my settings ready and waiting.
As I go to set down my stationary camera inside a custom weatherproof housing, I'm looking for a pleasing background and see the folded grass that humbly bows down into a subframe for the Western Snowy Plover and eggs. I also see a log laying down that points towards the subframe, which leads the eyes downward to the foreground. Then I see the pinkish-purple flower and the deep yellow leaf the contrast each other on opposite ends of the frame, further lending elements that suggest a deeper richness to the ecosystem. The flower is also just a really nice pop of color in a rather drab scene due to the overcast. They're also leaning away from each other... an interesting and subtle dynamic.
There is no way on Earth that I wanted to get this aperture and focus wrong. I focused directly on the eggs and closed down my aperture to f/8 from f/1.8. I wanted to for sure maximize my depth of field on the subjects without introducing too much focus into the background. It was important to me to have clear separation of subject and background, rather than something like a wide-angle landscape with everything in focus from front to back. So, we quickly and carefully retreated about two hundred yards back, and we sat quietly, watching from our scope. A muffled camera and a remote trigger did the rest.
In post processing, I also cropped in a bit to eliminate a bland, bright, and distracting sky while placing the center line to meet the eye of the mother.
Biologist Carleton Eyster looks out for any signs of Western Snowy Plovers. He's also one rad dude; calm spoken yet adventurous and free spirited.
Research and Conservation
Western Snowy Plovers are a bellwether species, meaning that they are indicators of a healthy habitat. It might seem impossible, but we could actually lose our beaches, and subsequently the wildlife, to coastal erosion caused by warming weather and rising tides caused by climate change. If there exists the plovers in an area, we can actually research and understand what makes such a beach habitat resilient to the active climate change happening at this very moment. From that, it's possible to create conservation actions that lead to the restoration and protections of coastal dune habitats so they do not disappear. All because of this one tiny species of hardy beach-dwelling bird.